Nick Shymansky met Amy Winehouse when she was 16, and worked as her manager between 1999 and 2006. Together they released her debut album, Frank, in 2003. He now works as senior A&R manager at Island Records.
How did you become Amy’s manager?
An artist I was looking after, Tyler James, said he knew a girl called Amy Winehouse who’d dropped out of school, and things weren’t happening for her. Looking back on it, I was 19, working in the music industry but I didn’t really know anything. I called her and pretended I was this big manager who could make things happen, giving it all the showbiz talk, and obviously she thought I was a wanker, she made it very clear. She flicked my ego away like it was a pea on my shoulder, and I realised humour was the backup plan, and that’s how we connected. The whole time she was saying she had absolutely no interest in making music. I got this package through the post with a demo tape with two songs on, and the jiffy bag was covered in stickers of hearts and kisses, and it had “Amy” scribbled over it about 100 times. It didn’t fit with the girl who didn’t want to be noticed. I put it on in my car and it blew my mind. As soon as producers heard her they were in. From the off, she was very funny, very blunt. She was different, she used to make a lot of her own clothes. She was a personality.
What was your relationship with her like as a manager?
We connected on music, we used to go to a lot of gigs. I’d feel completely inadequate because I thought I knew my music – I assumed, I’m the guy in music, I’m gonna know more than you – and I learned very quickly that she knew so much more. It was my job to get her from A to B. If I booked in a session and didn’t literally get her out of bed, in the car, drop her off, pick her up, sit in on the session, it just didn’t happen. There were two motivations: one, you had to make it fun. Two, there had to be a strong musical pull. If there was a good studio with loads of instruments, or some musician who could really play, she’d be out the door like a flash. We were young, we were kids, we were figuring it out in our own ways.
What was her songwriting process like?
There were two sides to how Amy would write: either playful, tongue-in-cheek, almost concept-based, like I Heard Love is Blind and Fuck Me Pumps, or extremely personal and deep. I remember the first two songs she came up with for Back to Black were two completely opposite styles of her: Addicted, which went “you got me addicted, more than any dick did”, although this was way before any signs of any problems. The first really serious one I heard was Unholy War, where she used this very current phrase that was all over the news, and she’d made it about her own mess and unsolvable problems.
What was Amy like to hang out with?
At times it would be very difficult, but most of the time she’d be so sweet and funny. There are lots of things though which I now look back on and think, shit, that was a sign [of things to come].Once we were out in this really nice hotel in Miami, having the best time, and she came downstairs in a bad, bad mood, and she just kicked a metal chair across the restaurant. She must have felt instantly bad, and said, “I’m in a really bad mood and I don’t know why, I’m just really angry, and it’s not your fault, I’m really sorry.” Looking back years later, I realise that there was depression. That’s something I learned from the film: I didn’t know she took Seroxat as a teenager. I didn’t know about the bulimia either, until towards the end of working with her, when she dropped a massive amount of weight real quick. It’s very easy to look back, it’s very hard to see things all around you at the time.
How did Amy change in later years?
I’ve never experienced such a drastic change in a human being. I’d been on holiday in 2005, and when I got back she told me she’d met this guy and fallen in love, and that he was “a right wrong’un, but a good boy”. I walked in and he was there, and that’s when I first met Blake [Fielder-Civil]. And I thought, something’s really wrong. I don’t have any evidence of this, but I feel instinctively that she was doing something heavy, like crack or heroin. It was horrible to see her going from someone so tender and brilliant and warm to being kind of derelict and lost. But at the same time there was something vulnerable about Blake. I get angry when I see him in the film, and I’ve been very angry with him in the past, but at the end of the day he wasn’t a grownup, he was a lost kid who had his own issues.
What happened after that?
The next year was just hell, things got very dark – phone calls in the middle of the night, her talking gibberish, “come and get me, I’m in the toilet at the pub”, “what pub”, and the phone would hang up. I’d be driving round Camden at 2am, trying to see where there were lights on in pubs. She knew that I knew something wasn’t right, and around me she was kind of ashamed. I felt really protective. There were glimpses of [the old] her here and there, but she never got back to that place ever again.
- Amy will be in UK cinemas from 3 July, following a nationwide preview on 30 June
- Guardian Film Show LIVE, with Asif Kapadia on Amy Winehouse, and much more. Wednesday 1 July 2015, 7-8.30pm, Prince Charles Cinema, London